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---- meets Kirchliche Dogmatik
Leading off the entry tonight is the one of the latest addition to June's collection of nativity scenes. We picked up this ursine version in the Smokeys on our way home from the Carolinas in October.
It's dark out. Yes, I notice these things. It's also cold. Quite cold. Colder than it has been in early December in a decade or so, I'm thinking. So, it's dark and cold. The angel trumpet plant, which was flourishing so nicely a few weeks ago, has entered a stage of dormancy, and we're using a plant light to try to make sure that it will return to its former splendor once it has awakened from its dogmatic slumber.
Which brings up Christmas lights. What a fabulous invention! Of course, I doubt that it's just by chance that a lot of cultures in the northern latitudes have various rites involving lights, candles, and special candles. We need that special reassurance that the darkness is not final. The words of John 1:4-5 concerning Jesus,
In the little box above labelled "In the Backdrop" I wrote "Celtic Woman: Home for Christmas," which will undoubtedly be over by the time I actually post this. I'm afraid that I did not know about Celtic Woman until a few days ago when their Christmas program aired on PBS. (Needless to say it was fund-raising time, since that's when PBS airs the good music programs.) It was a delightful surprise, and I'm not just talking about the concert qua concert; the musical selections were not just "holiday songs," but to a large extent Christmas carols and songs in celebration of the birth of Christ. For what it's worth, if you have worn out your old Mannheim Steam Roller Christmas CD's, or they have worn you out, I recommend this DVD, which you can get either by making a donation to PBS or by buying it at places like Amazon.
I'm all set to get back to Luke and more regular posts, but not tonight any more.
Here we are at the end of what Seth called the "Thanksgiving Marathon."
Each of us three couples (Nick & Meghan, Seth & Amber, June and your bloggist) in some way had two thanksgiving dinners that couldn't be beat (see below; hereafter: TDTCBB), one on Thursday and then today for the six of us at our house. June made extremely palatable Cornish hens. Funny thing about that: She and I didn't remember that Nick had made Cornish hens last year until I happened to look up what I had written in the blog about Thanksgiving twelve months ago. Not that it would have made a difference; it just shows that we don't necessarily recollect things as well as we used to.
For Thursday, June and I made a fast up-and-down trip to Michigan. We left on Wednesday and checked into the motel, went to sleep and didn't get up until the next morning. Then we spent all day Thursday at the house where her mom along with sister Kris and brother-in-law Tom live. We had the first of the two TDTCBB's with them and subsequently spent quite a bit of time doing music, along with some other friends they had over as well. In the evening we went back to the motel. Once again we went to sleep and didn't get up until the next morning. Then we drove home on Friday. And to make a long story short, this (Sunday) afternoon we had the second TDTCBB.
I ran across an interesting book review while googling for some possible Thanksgiving art. As you can tell, I didn't find any that intrigued me and, consequently, went with my own illustrations one more time. I gave the Ducktor a forum to communicate his conviction that ducks should not be consumed on Thanksgiving and decided to rerun last year's cartoon of what the first truly American Thanksgiving may have been like, where the emphasis does not so much fall on the "first" as on the "truly American" (as opposed to repeating European customs). I learned from the Wikipedia article "Spork" that this hybrid word combined of "spoon" and "fork" is patented in the UK as well as in the U.S., but it apparently had its origin here. If not, it should have.
Anyway, the "if not, it should have" mentality apparently has generated quite a bit of Thanksgiving lore over the years. The book being reviewed by Thomas S. Kidd on Christianity Today online, is entitled The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. (IVP, 2013) The author, Robert Tracy McKenzie, apparently demonstrates the relative paucity of information concerning the first Thanksgiving on Plymoth Rock, the fact that many conceptions about that event by Christians are not rooted in fact, and attempts to set a pattern for how Christians should engage with similar historical claims. The reviewer clearly approved of McKenzie's approach; his review bears the somewhat daring title: This Thanksgiving, Stop Idolizing the Pilgrims. Thanks to Kindle, I was able to download and start reading the book immediately. It's too early for me to make any useful comments, but I did like the fact that McKenzie reminds us right at the beginning that a celebration of giving thanks to God for a good harvest is a tradition beyond national boundaries, and he mentions the fact that the Algonquian people already had an annual time for the worship of God "tied to the crop cycle" (location 85), to which occasionsnI also make reference in In the beginning God, p. 215.
All of which should not lessen, but strengthen our commitment to take a day or so to gather with friends and family to think about whatever we have reason to give thanks for and to express our gratitude to God. For that matter, let me point out again, if I may, that feasting was encouraged by God as a form of worship, with the passover seder being the most prominent example.
Thus, if I may venture an opinion, I'm troubled about what the ongoing encroachment of "Black Friday" onto Thanksgiving Day may do to our national "soul," if there is such a thing. For my non-American readers, let me explain that the Friday after Thanksgiving is considered to be the official opening of the "Christmas shopping season" (which should probably be a topic of its own some time). In order to attract more and more customers, of late a number of large retail companies (e.g., Walmart) have opened at the stroke of midnight and offered highly attractive bargains for people who were willing to trade a few hours of sleep for some great prices on things that they presumably would have bought anyway. It's not that no store has ever been open on Thanksgiving Day, but this year some of those same large retail companies (e.g., Walmart) let their "Black Friday" begin on Thursday at 5 pm. I don't have any numbers, but I thinks it's probably quite safe to assume that it was a big success for them, though apparently there was some resentment by some employees for having to work on Thanksgiving as a result. So, is Thanksgiving going to become "National Bargain Shopping Day" in another decade or two?
Yes, I realize that on an individual level for any number of people, they may not have anything else to do, so they might as well be shopping. Except it's not just shopping--it's frenzied mob-like activity from what I've been told and read in the news. Here's the paradox: For a day that, regardless how much its beginnings may be shrouded in the historical records, has been designated as a day for being thankful for what we have, the trend has become to elicit the feeling that we might miss out on something that could be ours. Gratitude is giving way to grasping.-- Should I have said "greed"? No, I don't think that "greed" is the right word, at least for the consumer. I doubt that they are all greedy people, but they are people who will feel badly if they think that they be missing out on some marvelous opportunities for enormous savings. The advertising appeal is directed to them as people who spend their money wisely by taking advantage of the bargains being offered.
Well, I can't change such things and certainly wouldn't want to have the authority to do so. For that matter, I imagine that in some households thanksgiving dinner is more stressful than any half-crazed shopping spree. Let me just say this: No matter how hectic this weekend has become for you for whatever reason, it doesn't take a lot of time to reflect on what you have to be grateful for and to thank the Lord for those things.
Maintaining my resolve not to let this series be a polemic on the theological correctness of Calvinism or Arminianism, I shall continue with the problem of evil. In light of the FB discussion, I should also mention here that, despite the fact that we have somewhat different theological views and differ in the terminology we use to identify our positions, Dr. Norm Geisler and I are in basic agreement on the structure of this “Best Way” theodicy.
Please let me remind you of the points so far:
1. Just because someone is including human free will in their approach to the problem of evil does not mean that they’re actually using a “free will defense.” The free will defense by itself is neither adequate nor actually used very often (if at all). Those who include a free will component for the most part actually use a “higher value” defense by clarifying that human free will is necessary to attain a higher value than would be possible without it. It is not possible (at least for a Christian) to say that God gave us a free will without making reference to the greater plan of God. God would not have given human beings a free will if he did not have a good reason for doing so.
2. At this point those who believe in either a compatibilist or non-compatibilist view of the will should come together again because both groups should agree that ultimately it is God, not we, who will take us to the best of all possible worlds.
3. In the meantime, we are experiencing the process, guided by God, to which we can refer as “the best of all possible ways to take us to the best of all possible worlds.” From our temporal perspective this process has to take time because it involves bringing out virtues that we have to learn. Furthermore, given the undeniable fact that there is evil in this world, apparently that process must also include the presence of evil along the way. Regardless of whether you believe that free will is a necessity for this process or that stipulating a morally significant will is sufficient, logic bears out that in order to realize some higher-order goods in us, it is necessary to experience some lower order evil.
4. Still, we know that God, given who he is, will achieve his end, which will be a world much better than the one experienced by Adam and Eve.
I ended the last installment by mentioning the questions: But why so much evil? Why this particular evil? Why is God letting the process go on for so long?
And, of course I have no answers to those questions. But if I’m firmly committed to believing in an infinite, omniscient God, I can trust him to do exactly what is necessary. If I don’t believe in an infinite, omniscient God, I don’t have a problem of evil either. So, as I said before, the problem engenders the solution. In fact, the greater we understand the incompatibility of God and evil to be, the stronger the inference will be that God is taking us along the right path and that evil will be abolished. If you cut back on your understanding of God by diminishing his omniscience, omnipotence, love, holiness, etc., or the more you consider him out of control (e.g., by denying meticulous providence), the more you are also diminishing your assurance that God is implementing his victory. A drastic example of the result of such a reduction can be found in the works of some of the “open theists” (e.g., John Sanders), for whom God is actually working with contingency plans, not knowing (by his own choice) what the future will bring. I love the song by the Cathedrals, “I’ve Read the Back of the Book and We Win.” Let me quickly clarify, though, that obviously we don’t decide on the degree of divine sovereignty, and that we need to learn about God’s nature from his revelation (both general and special), not from our wishful thinking. Still, the Bible presents us with a God who holds his attributes without limits.
Why this particular evil? In most cases, if not all, I really can’t say. I know that the total evil in the world contributes to God’s overarching plan, but if you ask me why this or that particular person came down with cancer or whatever, I do not know. As a matter of fact, there are times when I think it verges on the offensive when people come up with some trivial rationalization of what strikes me as a pretty horrible amount of suffering.
Why so much evil? I will come back to this point, but I’m appalled at the amount and the kind of evil there is in this world. It’s never easy for me to come to grips with the holocaust, the present persecution of Christians, or the many kinds of suffering that people undergo. I don’t understand it. But that’s not where I start. I begin by knowing that there is a God in charge who has demonstrated his trustworthy nature to us by sending his son to die for our sins. So, even when I do not understand why God is allowing as much evil in the world as he is, I still know that his powers outstrips mine by an order of infinity.
Sustaining that kind of faith is not easy for me, and it should not be easy for you. God has made us to be greatly troubled by evil, and he hates it just as much as, or actually more than, we do. But he is God, and, consequently, if I’m serious about believing in him, I need to accept that his plan even includes such horrendous evils. It takes a lot of trust, and I can only trust a truly sovereign, infinite God, and even then it doesn’t always come easily.
Are we there yet? Or, why is it taking so long? For one thing, we can point to 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God is putting the world on reprieve, so to speak, to allow people to come to repentance. Beyond that, I cannot say why, from our vantage point, God is taking millennia to bring about the best of all possible worlds. It is the case, of course, as Peter points out in this context, that time for God is not what it is for us. If we understand God’s eternity to be timelessness, as we should, then the problem of duration is actually only one of our perception. But that doesn’t help because the problem of why we have this built-in perception of the duration of evil is no different from why there is evil. We’ve only moved things back from the reality of evil to the evil perception of evil.
What I can conclude by bringing all of these thoughts together is that this is, in fact, the worst of all possible worlds. And I find comfort in that thought. Let me explain.
I’m convinced that God exists, and I can’t possibly deny that evil is real. I can’t make evil go away with a cogent theodicy, nor can one eliminate God, if he exists, with an anti-theistic argument from evil. God and evil are both here, and so, to repeat this point once more, God will eliminate evil once it has served its purpose. God will not allow any more evil in this world than is absolutely necessary, nor will he simply stop some evil if it serves his purpose. Those conclusions are unavoidable given his nature. In short, God is allowing the world to be as bad as his plan calls for, but no worse.
So, when I say that this is the worst of all possible worlds, I’m clearly not invoking a “possible world” along the lines of modal logic. I can conceive of worlds that are much worse than this one; so, what is logically possible in that sense is not the point. What I’m focusing on is the metaphysical aspect. God will not allow any more evil into this world than is necessary for him to use. There is a limit to it, both in the amount and in the time for its infestation of the world that he created. Thus, speaking metaphysically, this world is as bad as God could possibly allow it to be. Or, the best of all possible ways to take us to the best of all possible worlds must be the (metaphysically) worst of all possible worlds.
Why is there any value in this statement? What, other than engaging in a clever semantic exercise, have I gained by saying that this is the worst of all possible worlds? It gives me a different perspective on confronting the evil that I see in the world.
1. I can recognize evil for what it is. It allows me to come to terms with the fact that, yes, whatever evil and suffering we encounter is not just something that someone slipped in when God wasn’t watching.
Let me illustrate this point with the preface that sometimes when people have gone through a lot of problems, it can be a relatively small matter that serves as the last straw to send one’s ability to cope crashing.
Quite a while back now, one of our sons had some pretty drastic medical issues. We needed to do a lot of driving to hospitals, doctors, and a few times to some special medical supply stores. Our car at the time was pretty old and worn. Towards the end of that particular time period, it was not worth a whole lot any more, with engine problems and a sagging undercarriage that was likely to drag on bumps in the asphalt of uneven country roads. Unfortunately bad country roads were really the only option for us to drive on because there was no way I could venture onto a real highway with that vehicle any longer. The financial situation, needless to say, was problematic as well. In short, things were not looking very good one day when we needed to drive to Muncie, a nearby town, in order to pick up some item or other from a medical supply store. On our way there, using the back road, we suddenly came up on a “Road Closed” sign. I thought I knew a different way to go that would avoid that obstacle and drove a long semicircle of many miles, only to wind up at that very same place again. So, I thought things through, and thought of another way to go, and this time we did not get back to that earlier “Road Closed” sign. Instead, we wound up at a different “Road Closed” sign.
For a moment there I came close to an internal meltdown. I am happy to say that I did not, but my psyche did hit a rather serious low point. And we did get to where we needed to go and made it home safely as well.
Afterwards June and I talked about the events of the afternoon, and it was she who reminded me of my philosophical idea that I was forgetting to implement. She said, “You know, as much as we don’t like it, we should keep in mind that, after all, this is exactly what we should expect if this really is the ‘worst of all possible worlds,’ and there’s no reason not to trust God as we’re going through this time.” Or words to that effect. As strange as it may sound, I really had not made the connection between my nice theoretical idea and its practical application to this scenario in our real life. Of course, she was right, and, thus, what started out as a point of philosophy I had written a year earlier became a moment of comfort. Recognizing God’s plan, we can see the world realistically and don’t have to explain away the problems that we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is not to say that we can ever take any evil or suffering lightly, let alone just cover it up by invoking a phrase or an idea. Still, the reality of evil does not mean that my faith in our sovereign Lord is misplaced.
2. It reminds me that there is a limit to evil. Logically, the world could be worse. Logically, there might never be an end to suffering. But, if I may quote myself from somewhere, “the worst of all possible worlds is still so good that someone as astute as Leibniz could confuse it with the best of all possible worlds.” I can experience whatever pain and suffering may come my way, accept it for what it is without rationalization, and know that I’m still in the hands of a loving God, who has already won victory over evil and is merely now in the process of implementing it.
A free will defense on its own (which is an exceedingly rare thing to find), could only explain why it is beyond God’s responsibility that there is evil in the world. A theistic theodicy gives us at least a hunch why God may have permitted evil, and it also provides us with a foundation for counting on God to eliminate all evil.
|Packer says: "It is instructive in this connection to ponder Charles Simeon’s account of his conversation with John Wesley on December 20, 1784 (the date is given in Wesley’s Journal)."|
[I happen to own Wesley’s Journal, and, as is true for many items in his entries, the meeting receives just the barest mention, but is highlighed with an exclamation mark. The numerals refer to the time of day:
4 Prayed, Lev. xix. 17, select society, tea; 7 chaise; 10.30 Hatfield, M[iss] Harv[ey] chaise; 2.30 Hinxworth; 3 dinner, Mr. Simeon! writ society, tea, conversed; 6.30 Gal. vi 14! 8.30 supper, converse, prayer: 9.45.
John Wesey was clearly an "early to bed and early to rise" kind of person. I do not have a copy of Simeon’s journal, but I believe we can trust Dr. Packer's accuracy. He opens his excerpt as Simeon is addressing Wesley.]
| ‘"Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.… Pray, sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?"|
"Yes," says the veteran [Wesley], "I do indeed."
"And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?"
"Yes, solely through Christ."
"But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?"
"No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last."
"Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?"
"What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?"
"And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?"
"Yes, I have no hope but in him."
"Then, sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree."’
Having said that, I do need to get polemical for just a moment here, though again, the point that I want to make is that if we are genuine Bible-believing Christians, even if we differ on such an important topic, we still have more in common than not. [Does that really need to be said?]
Two verses that Arminians frequently cite in order to refute the Calvinist version of the doctrine of election are 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4.
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).
"[God our Savior] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4 NIV).
But think about it. Arminians who don’t want to invoke the Calvinist view of unconditional election still have to recognize that God proceeded to set up a system (one that involved free will) which God knew would not suffice for a large number of people to come to a saving knowledge of him. One can say, of course, that God has given every person an opportunity to decide for or against him, but initially at least, one must question how many people actually do get the opportunity to hear the gospel message clearly and coherently, presented in such a way that they can make an informed decision, understanding all of the consequences, to receive Christ as their Savior.
But wait! Surely there are ways of understanding these verses so that they do not clash with an Arminian theological perspective!
Of course, there are. My point is simply that verses such as these belong both on the Arminian as well as the Calvinist doorstep. If you prefer to maintain the Arminian line, that’s fine with me for present purposes, but please do not think that God’s sovereign plan for the universe has no role to play in a sound interpretation of verses such as those. It is awfully easy to deduce a skewed theology from too limited a base.
What follows is to a large extent a summation of Corduan and Geisler, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., now available from Wipf & Stock, and in my No Doubt About It.
This is how far we have come in the present discussion: The incompatibility of God and evil is best understood as something that, if it has not yet been resolved, will be dealt with in the future. In the meantime, there is no question that there is evil in the world, and, thus, given God’s attributes, it stands to reason that such evil must serve to bring about a secondary good of a higher order than would be possible without it.
Another question immediately rears its head: Doesn’t that turn evil into something good? No. We need to differentiate between the nature of something and the purpose it may serve. By its very nature, evil can never be good (metaphysically it’s a privation of some essential good), but it can be seen as functioning in bringing about a good, or (with St. Thomas) it can be an unavoidable secondary consequence of bringing about a higher good. Either way, it is never good.
So, here are a couple of illustrations of the logic of how this process is supposed to work. If God, due to all of his properties, will create the best creatures, then some of those creatures need to manifest the highest virtues. For example (and this is really just a microcosm at best), God wants creatures who display altruistic love. But that is a virtue that, by its nature, must be learned. And, as Norm Geisler puts it, God cannot "learn" people anything. God can provide the opportunity for them to learn it. However, to acquire the virtue, people need to go through circumstances in which they can acquire it. Such circumstances, in turn, must have some kind of deficiency for such specific virtues. In other words, a certain amount of evil is necessary for human beings to acquire such virtues as altruistic love, benevolence, pity, and so forth.
To continue with these initially trivial- sounding illustrations, one cannot learn courage without danger; one cannot learn humility if there is no opportunity for pride. And to take a big leap forward, one cannot experience God’s glory in hissovereign grace apart from sin. God manifests his glory in taking us to a state of glorification, and this cannot happen without a process that takes time or that can be attained apart from evil in the world. [Remember my comment in a previous post that God is not simply restoring us to Adam and Eve's state of innocence.]
Now, I’ve stated that these examples are illustrations of the logic involved. In the microcosm in which I've displayed them, most of them do not go very far because they appear to be trivial. But, just in case we need reminding, God is omniscient; we are not, and so we are limited in our understanding of how precisely God is carrying out this process. Even though I believe in "meticulous providence," that does not mean that I have "meticulous omniscience" and can identify for each individual evil how God may be using it to bring about which particular good. In fact, much of the time I’m really bothered when people try do that in cases where, from my perspective, the evil I see is still a whole lot worse than whatever puny good people may claim to be its outcome. Events and their consequences are interlaced in complex patterns. I’m not omniscient, and I need to trust God, not my personal rationalizations.
But the argument does not depend on my having "meticulous omniscience." God, given all of his attributes, must have chosen the best of all possible ways to take the universe to the state of being the best of all possible worlds. The best of all possible ways must include an encounter with evil because without permitting evil the results that God is bringing about would not possible. The ultimate goal is God’s glory, and that’s not just an abstract term because God’s glory includes our glorification, having passed through a world infested with sin and evil. I’m still be possible.
I'm still not quite there with the "worst of all possible worlds," and I don’t want to rush it. In the meantime, let me address one further concern that’s been voiced. How can I get a decent apologetic out of this?
It’s actually pretty straight-forward because it is God-centered. The problem, as I have stated, is that there is a conflict between God and evil. I don’t need to engage in soft-pedaling the problem here and talk about an inconsistency, let alone an apparent inconsistency, between two propositions. God and evil are in conflict. If I do not affirm that reality, I’ll never get anywhere with any theodicy. However, it is precisely the reality of the conflict that also entails the possibility of a resolution. If God does have all of those attributes that are incompatible with evil, then these corollaries must follow:
1) God will abolish evil.
2) God is allowing evil for a time in order to bring about a world that is better than it would be without allowing for evil.
3) Statement 2) is plausible. We can see its logic illustrated in the fact that, for example, certain virtues could not be learned by human beings unless there were some evil that catalyzes the learning process.
But why so much evil? Why this particular evil? Why is God letting the process go on for so long? Next installment.
The pain to which I referred in the last two posts is a whole lot less, now that I've stopped taking the new medication Dr. B had me try. Obviously, that also means that I won't get the benefit of it, which I regret. But one has to take into account the benefits vs. the costs. One web page concerning the medication said something like, "Keep in mind that your doctor woud not have prescribed this medicine for you if he didn't believe that on the whole its benefits outweigh the side effects." Good point. But pain at levels 8 or 9 pushes the equation in the other direction. Fortunately, Dr. B has given me the freedom to decide whether I'm tolerating the medication or not, so I don't have to do any negotiations with him. Not that I think that in this case it would really be up to question. -- What I'm really thankful for is that, even though the PD symptoms are slowly progressing, I'm still at a stage where drastic measures regardless of side effects are not called for. Let me add this thought, leading up eventually to a clever segue: I guess this is kind of a personal "triage" situation.
"What is triage?" you might ask. Back when I used to teach ethics from time to time, I usually found myself at some point or other writing in big letters on the board:
"NOBODY LIKES TRIAGE!"
"Triage" refers to the process of sorting out how best to allocate limited resources in order to do whatever is best in a critical emergency. For example, if you run a military medical station like in the good old TV show MASH, and the helicopter shows up with "Incoming Wounded," you have to decide whom to treat first. Let's say that there are three groups of wounded:
Category 1. Those who have serious, but not life-threatening injuries. They definitely need help, but they're not going to die if not treated within the next twenty-four hours or so. We'll say that this is is the largest group.
Category 2. A relatively sizeable group of those who have serious, life-threatening injuries, but their chances of survival, given the proper surgery and medication soon, are fairly good.
Category 3. A few people whose lives hang in the balance. They are in highly critical condition, and it'll take an intervention on a grand scale to save their lives. It will require a massive effort in time and resources to save them, and even then it may be futile.
Whom do you treat first?
This is the part that everyone hates. Unsurprisingly, when I used to teach this course to nursing students at Indiana University Kokomo, the majority usually came up with a realistic answer. In other contexts, the heroic side of college students frequently manifested itself: "You have to save every life, and so you have to start with the most seriously wounded and then work your way down." Alas! Let me remind you that the stipulation is that, as is often the case in reality, your resources are limited. While you may be spending hours treating people in Category 3, who may still not even survive, the men and women in Category 2 may be dying on you. Resources in personnel and equipment may dictate to you that you are best off saving the lives of those in Category 2 first, hoping that as many people as possible in Category 3 will hang on. Then you should go on with the Herculean effort required to save their lives as well. As I said, NOBODY LIKES TRIAGE! It would seem that in the best of all possible worlds one wouldn't have to make such awful, almost dehumanizing, decisions. The issue has nothing to do with "playing God"; I assume that if God would intervene and dictate the decisions to them, the human beings who are saddled with making them at the moment would be delighted. These decisions are a very heavy burden to bear, and it seems to me that they are one of the many reasons that people come back from war psychologically tied in knots. Still, in the meantime, they have to keep trying to make the right decisions , perhaps hoping that God will forgive them if they made wrong ones. Similar consideration apply in huge civic emergencies or natural disasters.
The reason that I carried on with describing the nature of triage above is that there are clear parallels to the problem of evil, namely the idea that what may be an evil in isolation, may bring about a higher good than would be possible without it, and that this higher good is worth the price of tolerating such an evil.
Let's keep our minds clear on two points.
1. The very nature of the problem is based on the stipulation that God exists. One can, of course, immediately say that, since there is evil, the existence of God is not possible and leave it at that. However, in addition to the fact that such a judgment would not take cognizance of the many ways in which theists have shown that the existence of God and the reality of evil are not incompatible, it doesn't help. Declaring that God does not exist is to throw in the towel and concede that evil has won. By assuming atheism, one has not eliminated a single particle of evil. What one has done is to eliminate the only basis on which there is any hope for the abolition of evil. The conceptual problem is caused by the concept of an infinite God whose attributes are unlimited. However, only by holding on to the reality of an infinite God do we have any hope that evil will be eliminated.
2. We also should not minimize the reality of evil. This is where the analogy to a triage decision becomes the strongest. God hates evil, and he has endowed us with the capacity to recognize evil as repugnant. When we encounter evil and suffering, it is not some good in disguise. Perhaps some good may come out of it, but that doesn't mean that the evil has become good. Consequently, again, recognizing God's nature leads us, then, to believe that he will eliminate that which is unacceptable to him.
Please note that in the last sentence of the two previous paragraphs I have switched to the future tense. After all, isn't that the better conclusion to draw from the standard delimma concerning evil? Let's look at the traditional dilemma again and revise it somewhat so that it fits in with what we actually believe:
1. The God of theism must be all-good and omnipotent.
2. If God is all-good, he will want to abolish evil.
3. If God is omnipotent, he is able to abolish evil.
4. If God is omniscient he knows how to abolish evil.
4. There is evil.
5. Therefore, the God of theism wants to abolish this evil, is able to abolish this evil, and knows how to abolish this evil. Furthermore, given his attributes, he will do so in the best possible manner with the best possible timing.
Of course we're now looking at another huge question. And again, I have to say that this question stares with equal intensity at both those who believe in a free will and those who believe in a compatibilist significant will. Why doesn't God eliminate all evil right now rather than letting things carry on for millennia after millennia of people and other sentient beings suffering from evil?
Perhaps if I were truly wise, I should just say, "I don't know." But at least I'll try not to rush in. From the perspective of a biblically-based theology, the answer has to be that God is demonstrating his sovereignty, both in judgment and grace. As I see biblical history, it is a record of how God gave human beings the opportunity in various different settings to demonstrate that they could be righteous on their own: e.g., with no formal rules, with the Noaic covenant, under a patriarchal system, under judges, with and without a detailed formal set of laws, with and without a temple, with different political arrangements, with and without a priesthood, etc. In each case, the result for human beings was failure, and it led up to God himself reconciling us to him through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the final end is the ultimate demonstration by God of his glory. Maybe we can expand this picture to the extrabiblial world in the context of general revelation and natural theology, thought I think the point can hold its own without having to cram every detail into the scheme.
A Christian view of time is different from any other. Eastern thought tends to see time as cyclic. Western secular thought sees time as linear without a significant beginning or end (interesting tangential question: For a non-theistic person, did time begin with the Big Bang along with the physical universe or just the universe?) Western religions (e.g., Islam, Zoroastrianism) see time as linear with a beginning and an end. For Christianity, time is also linear with a beginning and and end, but the end is already determining the present. We live in the anticipation of future reality ("proleptically," as Pannenberg says).
Philosophically, that mans that, even though this this may not be the best of all possible worlds, surely this must be the best possible way of taking us to the best possible world. If Leibniz made a mistake, it is not the "lapse" that Plantinga attributes to him, but the fact that he took a slice of time and said that this world right now at this moment is the best of all possible worlds. [See the discussion of Leibniz's theodicy by Jill Graper Hernandez, "Leibniz and the Best al All Possible Worlds" in Meister and Dew, God and Evil (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 94-105.)] His argument is sound, but there are concerns with the plausibility of his observation (see JGH, 105, the "feminist critique"), which may be more solvable if we add that this is the best of all possible ways to attain the best of all possible worlds.
Now, why would there even be the need for a process? If there is a goal toward which God wants to take the world, why couldn't he have done so immediately? Couldn't he have taken that awful tree out of the garden so that Adam and Eve would have remained free creatures, but did not have to do anything contrary to God's will? Or could God not have forgiven them immediately afterwards, as Islam teaches, rather than taking us through this long scenario of history? For that matter, if in heaven we will be free creatures but never sin, coudn't God have brought about that state of affairs a long time ago?
There would be such a need if the goal that God wants to take us to logically requires a process.
So am I questioning God's omnipotence? Am I saying that God is limited in what he can do because I'm saying that God's goal may logially be tied to a process?
Not at all. Let me bring up a verbal distinction between "limiting" and "delimiting." "Limiting" means that something could have a greater range of options in the properties it may have or the actions it may perform, were it not for some kind of an external restraint. I'm "delimiting" something when I describe its properties so as to distinguish it from some other thing. When I say that a square has four sides, I'm not really limiting it; I'm delimiting a part of its definition. Furthermore, surely we are not placing a limitation on an infinite being by saying that it cannot be finite!
Similarly, when I say that God acts within the "bounds" of logical necessity I am not limiting God; I am delimiting what is a part of his nature. Since God is rational in his very nature, it would be contrary to his essence to do something patently illogical. God can neither cease being God nor exist and not-exist simultaneously. Nor, for that matter, can he make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it. In the same way, if there are some things that God wants to do that logically require a process, he will use that process. (I suppose I could say that he "has to" use that process, but, given what I just said, that would be a redundancy.)
Well, as always when I begin a particular topic on this blog, it tends to wind up taking a whole lot longer than I had planned on. Let me quickly give you a super-brief preview of where I'm heading, so that I can then develop these thoughts in the next post(s) by taking my time without stringing you out longer than necessary: If the best of all possible ways to achieve the best of all possible worlds logically requires that there is evil in the world, then the fundamental problem is solved, but then this world must also be the (metaphysically) worst of all possible worlds. Explanation to follow.
Though I'm obviously not finished yet, feel free to make comments and ask questions now so that, if possible, I can integrate them into the discussion.
By way of clarification, I've put "hurting" into the last two State of Existence boxes. For some reason I have had excruciating "flank pain." It's not like the pain for which I had surgery a few years ago or kidney stones. I know that my appendix is in good shape. I'm afraid it's a reaction to the new med Dr. B put me on, which would be a real shame. Prayers and thoughts appreciated.
Thank you to those who have liked and forwarded last night’s post as well as those who made comments in various locations.
JGH encouraged me to weave into the next installment: a) whether I accept transworld depravity; b) whether I think Scripture bears out the view 'that God couldn't strongly actualize logically possible worlds in which states of affairs are brought about by human free decisions' (her sense is that it doesn't); and c) why build in 'authentic relationships' into the traditional argument?
My point in the first installment was that positing human free will seems not to be sufficient for a Christian response to the problem of evil. Purely theoretically, of course, it seems that all one needs to say is: God made free creatures and they used their freedom to rebel against him. But, given the fact that the God of Christian theism (the only one that we’re really interested in) is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good, (“omnibenevolent” from here on out), it seems to violate his nature if he simply created these creatures of whom he foreknew that they would create havoc. Remember the old dilemma:
We can also add Leibniz’s contribution to the issue, namely that God is omniscient and, consequently, he would know how to abolish evil. (Though in fairness we must remember that Leibniz did not think that a world without evil was the “best-of-all-possible worlds.")
Let me throw in here an important point, a part of which was magnificently highlighted by Marilyn Adams in her celebrated article, “God and Horrendous Evil.” For a Christian the problem of evil is generated by the apparent inconsistency between the God whom the Christian worships and the reality of the world. Thus, whatever the Christian believes about this God is permissible for her to use in establishing a solution. The Christian is not obligated to defend a concept of God that has been invented by an atheist, but is not part of what Christians believe. One thinks of the statement attributed to William James, “Gentlemen, as long as one lonely cockroach feels the pangs of unrequited love, this world is not a moral world.” (Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: a Biography (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), p. 310). With all due respect to William James, this is a contrived standard for the goodness of the world. As I have argued on the subject of miracles multiple times, the atheist does not get to set the standard of what Christians should believe, and the same thing applies to the problem of evil. To quote Marilyn McCord Adams:
The point is that Christians who are concerned about the philosophical problem of evil may limit themselves to what they believe about God, including those properties and actions of his that they have learned from scripture. Anything else is may be interesting, but carries no urgency with it. Furthermore, the Christian is free to use whatever information about God is included in her world view in order to solve the problem.
Yes, of course the atheist does not believe in God, let alone the inspiration of the Bible. That’s what makes him an atheist and unbeliever, and so the Christians solution to the problem of evil is highly unlikely going to satisfy him. Still, that fact is not relevant to the argument per se. The problem of evil is created by the tension between the existence of the biblical God and the reality of evil. The Christian derives her understanding of God from the Bible. It would be insanity for her to set aside what she has learned from the Bible and try to respond to the atheist without taking all that she believes about God into account.
Wow, I’ve been stacking again. Let me pop back to where I need to be. Why does what I referred to as the traditional free will defense bring in the idea of an authentic relationship between God and humans? In a nutshell the answer is that, if there were not a higher value connected to the freedom that human beings thoroughly misused, giving them a free will without a good reason would make God a monster. I mentioned the idea of the potential for an authentic relationship with God last night simply because that’s the one I hear used most often. It doesn’t seem to figure greatly in Plantinga’s approach. Another possibility that I did not mention, but will return to, is that evil is an essential aspect necessary to turn us into the kind of creatures we should be. Under the label of “soul-making theodicy” this theory has been advanced as far back as in the second century AD by Irenaeus and as recently as in the twentieth by John Hick.
|Compatibilist freedom: What we perceive as our free choices is compatible with God’s direction of our choices. |
Incompatibilist freedom: A choice by a human is free to such an extent that it is not influenced in a determinative manner by God.
The next question was whether I believed in transworld depravity. There’s a hitch connected to that question. Remember that Plantinga himself does not claim to present reality, but only a logically coherent framework in which the apparent inconsistency between God and evil vanishes. He brings that off by invoking incompatibilist human freedom and transworld depravity. In doing so he does not actually commit himself to believing in these concepts; he only needs to say that if those ideas represent reality, then there is no inconsistency.
Along with many other critics, e.g. Keith Yandell, I don’t think that Plantinga’s solution is ultimately sufficient. Truth and plausibility need to be factors. Let me illustrate my attitude with a silly example.
1. God exists as omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient being. Therefore, he will provide his creatures with the greatest amount of pleasure.
2. Evil exists.
So, we come up with the celebrated third proposition.
3. God loves his creatures so much that he gives them an unlimited amount of M&M’s.
Unfortunately, consuming an unlimited amount of chocolate candies will have deleterious effects on our bodies. That is an evil, but that’s not God’s problem. God fulfilled his role by being so nice as to give us all of that chocolate. The fact that we have abused his gift and thereby caused evil is not his fault.
Even if this argument were to work logically (and it would need a whole lot more refining), it certainly lacks plausibility. And, given the core of the problem of evil, even if the logic should hold water, the conceptual devices that we use must be plausible, or we have not done all that much good from an apologetic point of view.
I think that a defense based on transworld depravity, even though it is far more sophisticated than the M&M defense, still suffers from the same weakness. On the hand, it does hold more promise than the M&M defense, but, in the final analysis, it’s an artificial concept with plausibility issues. Plantinga says in Nature of Necessity that he was leaving as homework for his readers to compare transworld depravity with the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity. Let me briefly do so:
So, as helpful as transworld depravity may be to Plantinga’s argument, I don’t think it’s consistent with the Bible, and I do not accept it.
However, my greatest disagreement with Plantinga comes at the point that he calls “Leibniz’s Lapse.” Leibniz, according to Plantinga, did not pay sufficient attention to human freedom. Consequently, Leibniz believed that God, given his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence could create any possible world but would create only the best one, and, since he created this actual world, given his attributes, this world must be the best of all possible worlds. Plantinga alleges that Leibniz made a mistake in his thinking here because how a world turns out is not entirely in God’s hands. God created the actual world, and he could have created many other logically possible worlds. But there are also logically possible worlds that are beyond God’s ability to create, namely those whose features are actualized by human beings. Plantinga comes seriously close to Sartre’s view here (a thought that may give Alvin Plantinga the hives) because he seems to espouse the view that God, once having given freedom to human persons, cannot interfere with the actions that they actualize.
As a sidelight, I find it interesting that Plantinga’s philosophy is so frequently tied to the term “Reformed,” e.g., his “Reformed” epistemology, when he takes a view of divine sovereignty and human freedom that really does not strike me as fitting the Reformed paradigm. Regardless, I do not think that his understanding is compatible with biblical teaching. God created this world, and he never let go of the reins. He had a plan, and he is carrying it through. Actions by human beings have been included in his plan. On our level of human experience we may think that those actions are “free,” but, if so, then only in a compatibilist sense, which means that what we choose is in line with God’s agenda. Over and over again throughout the Bible, we see God directly intervening in the world and causing various people to do certain things. True predictive prophecy, such as the prediction of Cyrus by Isaiah, would hardly be possible if God did not lead people directly to undertake certain actions and thereby strongly actualize the world as it became.
And that thought takes us back to where we left off last time, and I’m not going to get as far now as I thought I would, but I deemed it highly worthwhile to respond to Dr. Jill’s questions.
You see, God’s intention just cannot be left out of the total picture. God created the world in such a way that it would be beset by evil. Let me try to make the next point as carefully as I can and hope it doesn’t get lost in the rest of this flood of words and so I will write what follows in short paragraphs for the sake of creating thinking pauses.
Let us agree (for the sake of the argument) that God gave human beings a free will. Let us also agree that he did so because a greater good would be attained by means of a human free will than would be possible without it. Is it possible that God could have brought about the same higher-order good without the lower-order good of a free will, which also engendered the lower-order reality of evil?
Let me phrase the question a slightly different way. A reflective biblically-oriented thinker will not think that God gave people freedom for no good reason, but that he had a particular goal in mind that is so wonderful that it would exceed the problems caused by free creatures. Can he bring about that goal without people having a free will in the incompatibilist sense?
It’s at this point that I’ve been misunderstood at times, possibly because I didn’t state the matter clearly enough in No Doubt About It. It is not my intention here to argue that humans do not have a free will. We can have a big free-for-all on that topic some time when we discuss theology.
Purely descriptively now, Calvinists, such as your bloggist, do not believe in an incompatibilist free will. They do believe in a will. They do not believe in free moral choices. They do believe in significant moral choices. How important is that distinction for the problem of evil?
My earlier contention is that Christian thinkers who take recourse to the notion of free will do so 1) because they believe that human beings possess it, and 2) because in this specific context they see it as essential for God to carry out his plans and attain his goals for the universe.
By contrast, Calvinists 1) attribute the same plans and goals for the universe to God, but 2) they do not believe that human beings have an incompatibilist free will, though 3) it is sufficient for people to make compatibilist morally significant choices to attain those goals.
So, to reiterate, my point is not to debunk the modified free will defense altogether. What I’m getting at is that, with or without free will, one still needs to realize that free will has never been an end in itself. For those who accept it, it is a tool that God uses to work out his purposes in the world. For those who do not, they believe that God can work out his purposes in the world without that tool. And thus, Calvinists and non-Calvinists should come together again. (I want to say “Arminians,” but for some reason, a number of Arminians of my acquaintance are unhappy with that label.) Both groups see (or should see) that when God created Adam and Eve in their state of innocence, he already knew of their future sin, but he also knew already that the end result would be a glorified state in the future that vastly exceeded anything that Adam and Eve experienced.
Well, I’ve about run dry, and if I add too many more words nobody will read any of this. I haven’t gotten around yet to the fact that this is the worst of all possible worlds. Maybe I’ll get there next time.
I've been meaning to write an entry like this one for quite a while. In the process of answering someone's question recently I wound up writing out some of these thoughts and decided I would make further use of them for this little corner of the internet.
Why don't I use the Free Will Defense on the Problem of Evil?
Because if I did, I might just be the only living person doing so. And looking through the past, the only name I can come up with is Jean-Paul Sartre in The Flies (Les Mouches).
Orestes and Zeus are confronting each other.
I would think that no Christian who cares about a biblical world view would go this far in letting the whole problem of evil ride on the simple idea that human beings are free to make their choices. Invariably, a more Christian free will defense ties into some other idea in addition to the proposition that God created humans with a free will. This additional item more often than not is the tenet that God did not just give human beings a free will for no particular reason, but that our freedom carries with it some higher value than would be possible apart from a free will. The argument typically runs along this line:
God, by his very nature, would only create the very best things, and those would include beings who are capable of an authentic relationship with him. That’s us humans. Unless we had a free will, our relationship to God would not really be a genuine one. More specifically, the idea is that God wants us to love him, and in order for our love to be real, it has to be freely offered to him by us. If it would simply be determined by God that we should always love him, it would not really be love, but a coerced set of actions that we perform towards God while God pulls the strings. God wanted a mutually reciprocal relationship with human beings that would be of a higher value than a mechanical, forced relationship. So, in order to create a world with the potential for this state of affairs to obtain, he had to give us a free will. The bottom line is, then, that giving us a free will was the necessary price that God had to pay in order to have an unconstrained relationship with us human beings. He knew in advance that people would misuse their free will and rebel against him, but it was still worth it in contrast to merely programming robots to do whatever he says. Thus, people who argue along this line, may be making use of the idea of a human free will, but their solution to the problem of evil would not mean a whole lot were it not simultaneously tied to a “higher value” defense.
The most common version of the free will defense goes something like this:
Alvin Plantinga stands out to a certain extent because he stays away from the idea that his solution to the problem of evil actually has to coincide with what can be shown to be real. (See his God, Freedom, and Evil, and his Nature of Necessity.) Plantinga’s “free will defense” has a more limited goal under the assumption that all one needs to do is to eliminate an apparent logical inconsistency, namely the one between the two propositions that
What one has to do is to find a third proposition that is consistent with one, and to demonstrate that those two jointly imply the second one. So, he argues that the following scenario eliminates the potential inconsistency.
God cannot strongly actualize logically possible worlds in which states of affairs are brought about by human free decisions. In less technical terms, God created the world and people who are free. He cannot coerce their actions if they are truly free, nor can he prevent the consequences of their actions. Thus, it is logically possible that they go wrong in their actions. What's more, it is conceivable that in every logically possible world where human beings exist, they will perform such wrong actions. Thus, it is possible that human beings suffer from this condition that he calls “Transworld Depravity.” It entails that both in the actual world and in all other logically possible worlds, people will go wrong. Plantinga concludes that there is nothing logically inconsistent in this idea. Consequently, there is no inconsistency between an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God and the existence of evil because it is logically possible that human beings not only have a free will, but also suffer from transworld depravity, which is beyond God's control. To summarize:
Any number of Plantinga’s critics have said that this is all very well, but, even if it does solve the logical problem of evil, people want to know whether what he is talking about corresponds to reality. Is there really such a thing as transworld depravity? Can we really assume that human beings have free will in the manner in which he attributes it to them? Plantinga replies that it is not necessary for him to answer those questions because all he needs to do is to show that there is no inconsistency. Logically speaking, he is right; and any number of atheists, e.g., William Rowe, have conceded that on those purely logical grounds Plantinga’s defense works and have invoked an “existential” or "experiential" problem of evil instead.
So, to summarize so far: A free will defense from a Christian perspective is never just that. It always involves a further factor, and thus becomes, for example, a "higher value" defense or may a "transworld depravity" defense."
Next installment: Why this is the worst of all possible worlds.
Here are a few brief miscellanious items since I'm not getting around to post more frequently.
"1-5 1-5 1-5 1-5 / 4-1 4-1 4-1 4-1 / 5-2 5-2 5-2 5-2 / 1-5 1-5 1-5 1-5"
If you're not a bass player, those numbers may not mean all that much to you; if you are, and you play country or gospel, they're your bread and butter. I was thinking of that line on the way home from Cowboy Church Saturday evening, thinking that I would immediately write a blog entry. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that I was way too tired. Still, once again, Cowboy Church was great. By the time it was over I had blisters on several fingers, one of them popped. It couldn't get any better than that.
The phone interview on Thursday with Janet Mefferd went fine. I wasn't exactly Demosthenes, but on the whole I think I said what I intended to say.
If you've been a regular reader of this blog, you'll recognize the name "Jimm," who has frequently left comments. Jimm, who works at Wingate College, has been in a serious accident that's left him with a broken pelvis and several fractured vertebrae. He was riding his bike, and a truck driver, who was momentarily blinded by the sun in his eyes, did not see him and ran over him. Please pray for him and his wife Renée.
You may have heard that Indiana was hit by severe storms yesterday afternoon, including a number of tornadoes. In various places, most prominently Kokomo, building were leveled. Amazingly, last I heard there still have not been any confirmed deaths.
The inclusion of the picture on the right was obviously motivated by the discussion below. Some people may be skeptical about the reality depicted, but I assure you that it shows a real sheep and a real "cowgirl."
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v. 3: Now go; I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves. (HCSB)
Jesus sent some more disciples on a short-term missions trip. This time he expanded the number to seventy people, who were instructed to go in pairs to various towns to preach and to heal. He emphasized the potential negative reactions quite a bit more than when he had sent out the twelve.
Are Christians today living as sheep among wolves? I think that if they're perceptive they should know that they are. There is no way of getting around the enmity between God and Satan or Christ and the world.
For one thing, of course, there is the persecution of Christians that has taken on a much more public face over the last few years. Iran, Egypt, and North Korea are particularly in the limelight right now, but there are many other countries where becoming a Christian means to risk your life, and I'm not just thinking of Islamic ones. The United States and a few other countries are the exception, not the rule. Keep in mind that there are countries that may have established, legally recognized churches whose doctrine is a fairly watered-down liberalism or a meaningless ritualism, and true believers in biblical teaching are not welcome there either.
Let me put the question more specifically about us in America. Are we living as sheep among wolves? The answer is still yes. The wolves may appear to be very nice wolves, tamed and happy to let the sheep continue their grazing. And I do not expect things to take a radical turn to the point where Christianity would be outlawed in this country. To overstate such possibilities is to overreact and thereby to invite problems. However, we need to recognize that there is an unbridgable discontinuity between the world and true Christians. Christians do not (or should not) represent the pinnacle of achievement on the basis of the world's values.
The wolves among whom we live are not likely to start attacking us overtly. However, they can be extremely effective in trivializing the sheep. One of their favorite Bible verses (taken out of context, of course) continues to be: "Be ye moderate in all things." In application that means: "By all means, be good, pious Christians. Believe in the Bible, if you must. Think of Christ as your Savior, if it helps you. But don't go overboard and try to get other people to believe in the Bible or accept Christ." To take it a little further, "Affirm biblical inerrancy, but don't be so naïve as to think hold that therefore all the historical narratives in the Bible have to be true." "Accept the truth of the atonement of Christ, but don't take it so far as to claim that conscious faith in Christ is the only way of salvation."
The absurd twist in all of this is that there are so many sheep who think they should be pleasing the wolves. I don't think I care to elaborate further on any details . . .
Winter has come early to Indiana this year. Temperatures are in the thirties; the ground is cold enough that the snow flurries we've had actually stick to the ground. As usual, my body is having a bit of trouble with these conditions, and the PD symptoms have exacerbated somewhat. Dr. B has added another med, and I took my first one today. They say that it takes about a month for it to really be effective. We'll see. I'm optimistic.
Due to the apologetics conferences and other matters , I haven't been to Cowboy Church in several months. I just found out that it's still going, and that I'm welcome to participate again this coming Saturday. That thought immediately makes me feel a little less gloomy.
Oh, and I would like to request prayer that I won't stumble over my words tomorrow afternoon when I'm scheduled to be on the Janet Mefferd radio program to talk about my new book, In the Beginning God.
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v 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (HCSB)
This passage relates three brief vignettes concerning some potential disciples of Jesus. We do not, in fact, know how each of these men finally responded. The message is clear, however: Being a follower of Jesus requires a total commitment.
I have stated before that I am not particularly fond of the currently popular term of "Christ-follower" for Christians. It just doesn't do justice to all that God has given us in his grace. We are his children and heirs. "Christ-followers" seems to convey the idea that we are simply attempting to live by the instructions he has given us, similar to the way in which Muslims are followers of the teachings of Muhammad, but even they do not like the term "Muhammadans." I think that the term "Christian" ("little Christs"), of which the New Testament seems to approve (Acts 11:26) is still a better choice, as much as it may be misunderstood. When it comes to secondary terms, "believers" seems to me to be a fairly good choice, at least inside of the church. Purely subjectively, "Jesus People" will always have a warm place in my heart, but that's not a term I would normally apply these days either.
Let me follow up that comment with two qualifications.
1. "Christ-follower" is precisely the correct term for the disciples in the gospels. The term is practically synonymous with "disciple." It is related to the word "learner," and that's what these men were. Furthermore, it was typical in those days for the disciples of a rabbi to literally follow their teacher wherever he was going and to learn from him.
2. Furthermore, the fact that we are more than Christ-followers does not necessarily get us out of the principles that Jesus taught his disciples. We can't just avoid important truths taught by Christ on that basis. The difference between us and the disciples at that stage comes into play insofar as believers after Christ's death and resurrection and after the permanent coming of the Holy Spirit have a new nature that makes obedience to God a natural response to him rather than something that goes against their grain, as it were.
So, as Jesus was walking along, someone in the crowd presented himself to Jesus and announced to him that he would go wherever Jesus was going. Jesus did not turn him back, and we don't know whether the man's enthusiasm was doused right then and there, but Jesus did give him a reality check. To paraphrase: "If you want to follow me, prepare to be homeless. Most of the time, when we see birds, they are flying in the air, and chances are that if you see a fox, it'll be on the run, but these animals still have places that they call 'home,' where they can rest. But the Son of Man (Jesus) doesn't have any place to lay down."
So, if I'm correct in saying that there are principles here that apply to us, am I supposed to think that Christians are called to be homeless? That doesn't seem right, and I don't think that it is. However, it does mean for us that we do not have a permanent home in this world. 1 Peter 2:11 refers to Christians as "strangers" and "temporary residents" in the world. If we have a place we call "home," as much as we may be attached to it, it is still essentially a temporary location at which we represent Christ to the world, something like an embassy (2 Cor. 5:19).
|The ossuary found in Israel that bears the inscription "James, Son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003. It has received rough treatment both before and after that display. On the way to Canada it broke. Subsequent to its tour it was confiscated by Israeli police on suspicion of fraud by its discoverer, Oded Golam. In the process of testing it for authenticity someone applied red silicon to the inscription, which left a red residue and eroded the all-important patina (the shiny layer that is caused by aging), thereby pretty much ruling out the validity of any further tests, but presumably also making it impossible to sustain any charges of forgery against Golam. A few days ago, an Israeli judicial panel ruled that the ossuary must be returned to Golam after being quarantined for ten years. This Wikimedia picture was taken shortly after the discovery of the artifact. |
Statistically, given the distribution of names in Israel at the time, the occurrence of these names makes it far from conclusive that this ossuary belonged to the biblical figures.
Click on the picture for a close-up view.
Jesus took the initiative with another person. The circumstances aren't given, but Jesus surprised him by saying: "Follow me!" The man was willing to go, but he was not quite ready yet."Sure, I'm happy to go with you, but I have a duty to fulfill first. I need to bury my father." That seems to be a reasonable request, though I need to qualify it, lest it be overrated. This "burial" of his father probably did not mean that his father had died a day earlier, and that the son needed to fulfill his obligations at his funeral. In that case, he most likely would not even have been in the vicinity of Jesus At the time, a deceased Jewish person received two burials, so to speak. First he or she was buried in a tomb. Then, after a few years, when the corpse would be decayed enough so that the bones were the only thing left, they would then be placed in a heavy-duty box called an ossuary. It was probably this second kind of burial to which the man was referring, which also puts Christ's saying, "Let the dead bury the dead," into a somewhat more comprehensible light. The corpse was in the company of other corpses and could stay there a while longer.
I know so many people, who are so busy doing churchy things, that they forget that they are Christians. Being a Christian is not something you do, but something you are, and what you are takes precedence over what you do. Yes, all-in-all a secondary burial was an important obligation for a son. However, ritual obligations do not take the place of being Christ-like in all that you are and do.
The third candidate for discipleship was a volunteer again. He came up to Jesus and declared his intention to follow him. All he wanted to do was to say good bye to his parents before joining Jesus and his group. Jesus admonished him, however, by saying that anyone who is plowing a field and not keeping an eye on his work is unfit for the kingdom of God. There are a few things to untangle here since Jesus moved right from metaphor into spiritual reality.
This episode can't help but bring to mind Elijah's recruitment of Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:19-21), which I discussed a few years ago on this blog. Elijah made his will (or better, God's will) known by throwing his coat over Elisha's head while the latter was plowing a field with a team of oxen. Elisha asked for the opportunity to take leave of his parents, and in this case Elijah assented. Before he went off with Elijah, Elisha burned the plowing tackle and roasted the oxen over this fire in a little farewell party. In one sense, Elijah was more lenient than Jesus. But then again, Elisha made his intention of not returning to the life of a farmer crystal clear with this farewell feast.
I've never plowed with a team of oxen; come to think of it, I've never plowed with a tractor, a horse, or anything else either. Still, I understand that the hard part about it is to keep your furrows straight. Crooked furrows are not only unsightly, they also waste soil that should be used for raising the crops. Consequently, in order to plow properly one needs to put all of one's concentration on keeping the plow straight. If you turn to look what is behind you, your furrows are not going to be up to snuff.
Jesus was using this metaphor to indicate to this third candidate the seriousness of being his disciple. In line with the statements I made above, it should be pretty obvious that you cannot be a Christian apart from a total commitment. Now, please understand what I'm saying. I am not saying that in order to be a true Christian your entire life must be flawless and without faults or sins. Nor am I saying that to be a true Christian you must leave your entire past life behind in a physical sense. But what I am saying is that to receive salvation you must have faith in Christ, and exclusively in Christ alone.
Human caution leads us to make back-up plans for various situations. E.g., one should know several ways to get out of a house in case of fire. Or, if we don't get home in time to make supper we can always eat at the local fast food place. But the faith with which we need to come to Christ may not have any back-up plan. It consists of total reliance on Jesus. By this I mean that we trust Christ completely to have done everything that is necessary for our salvation. We are not saved by "having faith in Christ and doing our best," but by faith in Christ alone. I'm not now talking about the ongoing faith necessary in our daily lives as we need to trust God for various things related to health, provisions, relationships, etc. That is an ongoing struggle for many of us and comes later under the heading of our sanctification; it is not related to our salvation, except as a consequence. The unreserved faith is all about letting God take care of your salvation and making you his child.
One of the issues that I'm constantly dealing with these days via websites, etc. is that people don't want to be children of God so much as his nephews or nieces. They want the benefits of a nice relationship with him without the constraints (if that's what they are) that come with total commitment to him. So many people today want to pick what they like from various religions and treat the whole matter of "spirituality" as a hobby. This is really not possible for any religion, and, as we see here, Jesus certainly did not see a half-hearted commitment to him as a possibility.
Did I really say that Wilhelm Schmidt mastered all of the aboriginal languages of Australia in just a few months? I could play word games and say that I really didn’t say exactly that. My remark was more general, namely, that few people have ever done so. But if I stuck to that excuse, I would be disingenuous because in the context I certainly attributed that feat to Schmidt. Thus, I sit with my face just a little red. David Marshall is right: That was a dumb thing to say. I’m referring to an excellent review of In the Beginning God that he wrote for Amazon and also posted on his blog. Obviously, I’m grateful for the positive comments, but his specific criticisms are very worthwhile as well. I hope that the discussion on the whole will stay on that level, even if my writing style is somewhat “acerbic.” People who know me are aware of the fact that I come down hard on myself as well—too much so according to some folks. Anyway, I just want to thank David Marshall for a very helpful review and promise to read his books. And I should have said something like “Schmidt became knowledgeable on the Australian languages that were relevant for the discussion of his day in a surprisingly short time.”
The residents of Columbia, South Carolina, can rest a little easier as of tonight. Right around the time that I am writing these words, nephew Hunter will have officially graduated from Fire School. Congratulations, Hunter!
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vv. 55-56: But He turned and rebuked them,and they went to another village. (HCSB)
In this Bible passage we have yet another a little vignette displaying the manner in which the disciples overestimated themselves and the power with which Jesus had endowed them. The basic facts are given: the dislike between Samaritans and Jews along with the eagerness of the disciples to have Jesus set up his earthly kingdom as soon as possible.
Jesus intended to go from Galilee to Jerusalem, and at other times he had taken the shorter route straight south into Judea. Most Jews avoided cutting through Samaria because of the animosity and took the long way by crossing over the Jordan, going through the region called Perea, and then crossing back into Judea in the vicinity of Jericho. Jesus had traversed Samaria before, as we know from the story of the woman at the well. However, this time that itinerary did not work out. As we have seen, Jesus rarely traveled alone. He was not only accompanied by the twelve disciples and those who had a somewhat looser connection with him. He also drew crowds wherever he went, composed of those who wanted him to meet a need as well as those who were curious and eager to see a miracle or two.
Thus it was a good idea for Jesus to send messengers ahead to the town in which he wanted to spend the night to make sure that the facilities would be appropriate. However, the residents of this unnamed town did not welcome him. The messengers returned with the bad news that the Samaritans had hung up the “No Vacancy” sign in their town. Now, it could have been that they simply did not want to put up with the mob of people in Jesus’ entourage or that they had a problem with Jesus himself. But neither of those two options are right; the reason for their lack of hospitality was much shallower: They did not welcome Jesus because he was on his way to Jerusalem, as we learn in the text. Presumably, if Jesus had intended to visit the place in its own right, they would have rolled out the carpet for him, but they were not going to serve as a mere way station for any Jews, even a famous one, who were in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. One can speculate further that whatever economic benefits there might have been in hosting Jews on their pilgrimages would probably not make up for all the hassle and inconvenience. These pilgrims were going to spend their money in Jerusalem in and around the temple, not while they were passing through the territory of the Samaritans, whom they did not even like.
The disciples were seriously offended, and they believed that these inhospitable people needed to be punished for their attitude. We may want to recall here the specific instructions that Jesus had given to the disciples when they had gone on their short-term missions trip, as recounted earlier in this chapter. In verse 5 we see that Jesus had told them that if a village would not welcome them, they should shake the dust from their sandals and move on to a different location. For some reason they were not content with that approach, but they wanted to lay waste to the entire town. Were they trying to impress Jesus with that militant attitude on their part? Note that they did not ask Jesus to send fire from heaven, but that they wanted to do it themselves. They just requested permission to do so.
Jesus rebuked the disciples for thinking in this way. The kingdom of Christ does not advance by burning down villages that stand in his way. It is not furthered by violence or, for that matter, by any other kind of human force. Sure, one can force people to act in a particular way by following various rules and observing any number of prohibitions and taboos. Still, the end result of such a method is not the growth of Christianity, but the establishment of a Taliban- like theocracy. As I have undoubtedly mentioned before, the word “rebuke” that is used to describe how Jesus scolded his disciples is the same word used when Jesus confronted demons. It was a serious dressing-down that Jesus gave his followers.
Jesus simply went to another village, and we can assume that he was welcomed there without the need for any celestial flame throwers.